Transit Action Network (TAN)

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Central Europe and London-Part 3 – London

Posted by Transit Action Network on October 24, 2011

Diesel Electric Hybrid Red Double Decker Buses

London, UK- (city population 7.8 million, density 12,892 inhabitants/ sq. mi., metro population (mid-2010); 2.3 million -KCMO-density 1,446 inhabitants /sq. mi (2010))

Parliament, London

Big Ben, London

We only had a short stop over in London to go to the theatre and see friends. Since we knew we were going to the theatre in the West End we stayed at a hotel on the Strand by Covent Garden so we could walk to all the theatres. This is a great location. Many of the best sites are in easy walking distance, such as  the British Museum, the Tate Gallery, Tate Modern, National Gallery, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, Parliament, the London Eye Ferris Wheel, Trafalgar Square, St. Martin in the Fields Church, National Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, all the West End theatres and of course Covent Garden itself. Take a few minutes to visit inside St. Paul’s-Covent Garden’s parish church (fondly known as the Actor’s Church) – most people spend a lot of time in the square behind the church watching performers but go to the other side for a restful garden and the memorials in the church dedicated to many famous actors of the 20th century, including Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward, Gracie Fields, Stanley Holloway, Boris Karloff and Vivien Leigh.

We arrived at Heathrow Airport. There are multiple ways to get into the city center. Heathrow has a direct connection to central London on the Piccadilly Tube (subway) line, which goes right into the Covent Garden station.  Journey time is approximately 55 minutes to central London. Heathrow is located approximately 20 miles to the west of central London. Leaving Heathrow to return home was a nightmare because the check-in and security lines took nearly three hours.

London black cab

Of course you can come into London from Heathrow by taxi (cab) which is much more expensive but faster and direct to your hotel.  The London cabs are easily identifiable with a specific design and most of them are black cars. Make sure you learn what they look like. On occasion, as in all big cities, people have been known to fake being cabbies for criminal purposes.  London cabbies have to pass a grueling test to get a license. It takes between 2 and 4 years to pass this test. Anyone who can pass The Knowledge has a great memory and knows London forwards and backwards. It is the world’s most demanding training course for taxicab-drivers, and applicants will usually need at least twelve “appearances” (attempts at the final test), after preparation averaging 34 months, to pass the examination. London has the best cabbies in the world. I wish New York City would implement the taxi standards that London has. New York should consider implementing The Knowledge for NYC. Of course, new technology may make this level of  expertise obsolete.

See Transport for London for all the transportation options in London. See Wikipedia articles about TfL and information on transport in London.  Transport for London  (TfL maps) maps cover the Tube, tram, buses, walking, river, rail , DLR  (Docklands Light Railway) and red double-decker buses (many are diesel-electric hybrids) for London.

Be careful crossing the street

St. Paul's Church, Parish Church of Covent Garden-The Actors Church

Although the Tube and double-decker buses are always great, the biggest transportation news in London is bicycles. Bikes are the fastest growing form of transportation in the city. Bike riders are a very diverse group. We saw a lot of people in spandex outfits with expensive bikes with all the bells and whistles but we also saw a man wearing a suit riding an upright one-speed bike with a wicker basket.  Most people wear helmets.

Bike parking in Covent Garden

With bikes come lots of bike parking spots. Approaching the main shopping area of Covent Garden is a bike park that is supervised by the police. Remember that most of London is covered by CCTV now. This parking area had signs warning of the police surveillance as well as a notice that the police will stamp your bike with a tracking number if you chose to park there. I spoke with a man locking up his bike and he said that the police come around regularly to make sure the bikes are stamped with a number. The police put the number into their tacking system and it is up to you to enter your information on the internet to register your bike. I asked if this had reduced theft. He wasn’t aware of any thefts at this location for the two years he had been parking there. However, the best part of the system is that the second-hand bike dealers that were notorious for selling stolen bikes are no longer in business. Good News!

London started one of the earliest bike rental systems in a major city. The bikes are mainly used for short trips. They are free the first ½ hour and only £1 for the next 30 minutes. Watch the video about how the system works.

Bike rental rack by Charing Cross Station-filled up during the work day

Barclays Bank is advertised on the London rental bikes

The bikes were well used after work

About 10 am we passed the bike stand outside the Charing Cross Tube station close to our hotel and all the slots were full. People had either ridden the bikes to work, since this area is a major work location, or to the Tube Station. About 7 pm we passed the same location and only two bikes were left. On that day the bikes were really well used. The biggest lesson learned by the early adopters of bike rental systems was to have visually outstanding bikes. If they looked like normal bikes they often got stolen. A unique look equates to free advertising, too. Several cities in America have similar bike rental systems now and I look forward to Kansas City implementing Bike Share KC in 2012.

Trafalgar Square

London’s Tube is a great asset. If you are going to be in London for a while, consider getting an Oyster Card. Oyster is a plastic Smartcard you can use instead of paper tickets. You put pay as you go credit on it, which you use up as you travel. It is valid across all travel zones and automatically calculates the best value fare for all the journeys you make in a single day. There is a Visitor Oyster card too. London Oyster cards can be used on all buses, trams, Tube, DLR and London Overground services, and nearly all National Rail services. You can buy an Oyster card online before you go. You can also use your Oyster card to receive discounted fares on TfL River Services.

If you  are in the suburbs the London Overground consists of 5 suburban lines. Services have been upgraded and infrastructure improved since the government took it over.

Avoid driving in London since there are so many good transit options. Congestion charging in the central zone in another reason not to drive in the city. The congestion charge is the price you pay to drive into the central zone.  The charge is £10 daily if you pay in advance or on the same day, or £12 if paid the following charging day. There are discounts available. Parking and gas (petrol) are really expensive too. There has been a six per cent increase in bus passengers due to congestion charging and by law, all net revenue raised by the charge (£148m in financial year 2009/10) has to be invested in improving transport in London. Of course you could consider renting an electric car if you need to go somewhere not easily accessible by transit.

Electric Car and Charging Station in Covent Garden

Vintage Transit-London Transport Museum -1

Vintage Transit-London Transport Museum - 2

Be sure to visit the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden. It is in a wonderful steel and glass Victorian building, which used to be the wholesale flower market. Flower girls, like Eliza in the musical My Fair Lady, got their flowers here. Although the flower market has moved south, the London Transport Museum makes good use of this building. It is well worth a visit. There are great displays, information about how the London transportation system developed and historic vehicles. They have special exhibits too. When we were there “Under Attack” showed how the subways were used as air raid shelters during the blitz in World War II.

This article concludes reporting on this trip. I enjoyed sharing what I learned and experienced about transit in these three cities.  The related articles are on Budapest and Prague. Hope you enjoyed reading them.

Happy Traveling!

Janet at the London Transport Museum

Bill strolling through Covent Garden


Photos by Janet and Bill Rogers except for the red hybrid buses, London cab and Trafalgar Square.


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Central Europe and London-Part 2-Prague

Posted by Transit Action Network on June 1, 2011

Prague Hlavni Nadrazi main train station

Prague, Czech Republic- (city population 1.3 million, density 6,771 inhabitants/ sq. mi., metro population 2.3 million -KCMO-density 1538.4 inhabitants /sq. mi (2010))

Budapest Keleti Station

The only rainy day on our trip was spent taking the express train from Budapest’s Keleti Station to Prague’s Hlavani Nadrazi Station. This is central Europe so this wasn’t high-speed rail, but as an express train it didn’t have a lot of stops. This train took 7 hours to cover 275 miles. We purchased our tickets online at RailEurope before we left home. We had a 1st class compartment and since it was low season we had it all to ourselves. It was great to be in a comfortable train all day watching the geography and agriculture of Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic go by on a rainy day.

UNESCO listed Prague’s extensive historic center as a World Heritage site in 1992. Prague wasn’t bombed in WWII, unlike Budapest(see previous post). Prague’s Old Town (Staré Město) is an amazing concentration of historical sites, churches, a Jewish quarter, a huge astronomical clock (a main tourist attraction) and winding streets all in the shadow of a 9th century castle and St Vitus Cathedral. We stayed in the heart of the old medieval town in a 14thcentury building that had been converted to a hotel and residential building, so we walked everywhere.

Vltava River, Lesser Town and Castle Hill

St. Climent's Cathedral in Old Town

Old Town Square

Old Town Square from the bell tower

If you visit Prague I hope your ankles and legs are in good shape because you will be walking on lots of narrow, convoluted, cobblestone streets and up lots of steps.  Walking and public transit are the way to see Prague. Biking isn’t usually recommended in the tourist areas since the streets are so narrow and the cobblestones make very bumpy rides plus all this is mixed in with cars and small trucks. You see very few people on bikes in the Old Town. Cars are allowed in the Old Town and trams go around the outer part but buses are not allowed in the Old Town except for some tourist buses to pick people up in the main square.

Tram - Prague

Castle Hill from the Clock Tower

Astronomical Clock-Prague

Franz Kafka's boyhood home

Tram in Prague

There are several parts of the historic district, the Old Town where the peasants and merchants lived and across the Vltava River to Lesser Town and up the Castle Hill to the castle area where the rulers live. The set up is similar to Budapest except these weren’t administered as separate towns. The Charles Bridge connects Old Town and Lesser Town on your way to the Castle. On the river’s bank in Lesser Town is the Franz KafkaMuseum, worth it if you are a fan.

Public transit ticket vending machines

Outside of the Old Town, Prague has a one of the best transit systems in Europe with a metro (subway – 3 lines, 400 million passengers a year), trams (26 lines, 300 million passengers a year) and buses. The metro is only 30 years old and mostly Russian built. Two thirds of the population uses public transit. Single and transfer tickets are available at yellow vending machines.  Tickets may also be purchased at metro ticket offices, tourist information offices and newspaper stands. 1, 3 and 5 day passes are available. In Prague you can also purchase transfer tickets through your mobile phone and have the ticket delivered to your phone in one minute. Very technically up to date.

Back of St. Vitus Cathedral

Charles Bridge in low season

Most services are handicapped accessible – but check to make sure.  They have some special transportation mini-buses available, too

If you visit in high season it might be cheaper to stay just outside the Old Town and take a tram in. Some tourist buses come in to the Old Town Square (Staromestske) like the HOP ON HOP OFF bus but they don’t stay. The HOP ON HOP OFF bus in Prague mainly does a trip around the perimeter of the Old Town and castle, so we didn’t take it. No buses are allowed in the Old Town and with such an excellent metro and tram system most public transit buses are on the outskirts of the city.

Prague’s taxis have a bad reputation so ask the price from your hotel before using them and make an agreement before you get in.

Musicians in the Old Town Square

Musicians on Charles Bridge

Prague is renowned for its music. There are bands in the Old Town Square and on the Charles Bridge, our hotel had a blues club in the basement, Susan Vega performed one night at the Hard Rock Café just off the Old Town Square, every church has concerts and there are the Prague symphony and opera houses. All of it is delicious and depends on your time, interest and pocketbook. The concerts in the churches are a big tourist attraction and since these are all stone churches with vaulted ceilings, the sound is very beautiful. Although we went to several church concerts that were excellent, I want to recommend a small ancient, beautifully preserved church, St. Martin in the Wall. The big churches are more famous; their interiors are beautiful and sometimes so over the top with Baroque decorations that they are a bit gaudy for me. However St. Martin in the Wall is very old and built into the side of the Old Town wall. It has barren stone walls and a small chapel. We experienced the best sound quality with an amazing performance in this unassuming venue.

Prague tram

St. Martin in the Wall Church

You will need a full day to explore the Castle area, the largest in Europe. The Castle consists of a lot of different buildings with courtyards. In the center of the complex is St. Vitus Cathedral. It is very impressive and if you are up to it climb the winding staircase up the South Bell tower, 287 steep narrow steps. Go as early in the day as possible before it gets really crowded. I waited for my husband who thinks that all towers were created for him to climb. The cathedral is magnificent. I suggest you get an audio guide to the castle district and the cathedral if you are really interested in exploring this site.

Part of the fun of the Castle is getting there. The Castle steps are famous and there are two choices. Since none of the trams were close to our location in the Old Town, we zigzagged up the streets so the trip was not as steep as the castle steps. We walked down the Old Castle steps at the end of the day.

Halfway down the Old Castle Steps

Walking up to the castle:

1. Castle Steps (Zámecké schody) – these are considered the romantic Castle Stairs, which will take you to the Garden on the Ramparts (Zahrada na Valech).

2. Old Castle Steps (Staré zámecké schody) – These are near the  Malostranská metro station and Jiřská street. You will be rewarded with one of the most beautiful views of Prague.

Prague tram in Lesser Town-4 articulations

Getting There by Tram

Taking the tram will save you a walk uphill or up the stairs, and the ride is quite scenic. Take tram 22 (e.g. from Národní třída or the Malostranská metro station) and get off at one of these stops:

Some streets are tram only

1. Královský letohrádek – if you get off here, you can start with the Royal Garden, Belveder and Ballgame Hall, then cross the Deer Moat bridge to get to the Second Courtyard
Note: The Royal Garden and Deer Moat are closed from November through March

2. Pražský hrad – this is considered the main Prague Castle stop. Get off here if you would like to start at the Second Courtyard.

3. Pohořelec – getting off here will enable you to walk to the Castle through Hradčany and arrive at the main entrance. Considered the nicest route.

A good way to go is to take the tram up to the Castle and walk back down when you’re done.

Memorial to Jan Palach and others

Wenceslas Square

A five-minute walk from the Old Town Square is New Town (east and south of the Old Town), dominated with wide straight streets set out in a grid.  Wenceslas Square has a huge statue of Saint Wenceslas (yes, the one from the Christmas song) at the top of the street. Of course the Good King was really a prince and is considered the founder of the kingdom. His brother killed him in 935 AD. So much for family values!

Part to the way down Wenceslas Square is a small memorial to Jan Palach who set himself on fire January 1969 to protest the Russian occupation and the demoralization of the Czech people.

At the bottom of the street starts a long pedestrianized shopping area with all the top designer shops and lots of restaurants.

Bill at an Absinthe Shop and Museum

Prague is also known for its beer. However, you’ll see Absinthe (the Green Fairy) being sold everywhere in Prague. It’s bad reputation and subsequent ban throughout most of the western world came from the disastrous effects it had on French artists in the 1900’s. However, the ill health effects and early deaths were mainly related to becoming alcoholics, not the wormwood in the drink.  The US ban was lifted in 2007.

Janet at a chocoholic paradise

It is good I don’t live in Prague because I would die from chocolate overdose at the Choco Café. The dark hot chocolate (70%) is so thick you need a spoon (it is actually referred to a spooning chocolate). I ordered mine with wild berries but they had lots of fruit choices and combinations. Drinking a whole mug must have equaled several candy bars. They also have great food.

Next stop-London

Photos by Janet and Bill Rogers, except the rail stations and vending machines

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Central Europe and London-PART 1-Budapest

Posted by Transit Action Network on February 21, 2011

TAN will post occasional “Transit and Travel” articles about other cities. This is the first of a three part series covering Budapest, Prague and London and some of the transit options and issues in these cities .

If you are interested in reporting on transit in other places, please let us know. Articles about your transit experiences are very welcome.  Contact us at

Report by Janet Rogers

View of Pest from the Fishermen's Bastion in Buda

Budapest, Prague and London were the heart of my recent trip to Europe.

NO. 16 bus approaching my hotel in Castle Hill

Budapest, Hungary. (city population 1.7 million, density 8,395 per sq mile, metro population 3.3 million–KCMO  density 1,408 per sq mile) The cities of Buda, on a hill west of the Danube, and Pest, on the flat plains to the east of the river, were joined together in 1873 to form Budapest. We stayed in the Castle Hill district of Buda, the traditional center of power for Hungarian kings. There are lovely little streets, Buda Castle, St Matyas Church and major museums in this area. Castle Hill also has a magnificent view of Pest.

Pest is the home of the current Hungarian government with significant sites, activities and the Vaci Utca, a street which is  the heart and soul of Budapest. Both Castle Hill and Vaci Utca have been pedestrianized so they are great for walkers.

A combination of public transit and walking is the best way to get around Budapest. Driving is the least desirable method since there are few parking places, traffic is terrible and there is a maze of one-way streets. There are riverboat services in the summer and tourist sightseeing boats much of the year. Some buses and subway stations are wheelchair accessible but the trams have a steep step.

View of Castle Hill, Buda from a sightseeing boat on the Danube

St Matyas Church, Castle Hill, Buda

Number 16 bus Budapest

The number 16 bus stopped by every 10 minutes or less outside our hotel. These small 20 seat buses dart everywhere and take you directly into the main square, Erzsebet Ter, in Pest. Pest has lots of interesting sites including the House of Terror, which chronicles both the Nazi and Russian occupations. The Jewish Great Synagogue is the largest in Europe and was not bombed in WWII since the Nazis used it as a headquarters and the Allies wouldn’t bomb it because it was the center of the Jewish ghetto.  Make sure to see the tree size Holocaust Memorial built like a menorah with the names of holocaust victims on the metal leaves.

All of Budapest’s bridges and 80 percent of the buildings were bombed or damaged in WWII. Budapest was rebuilt to retain it’s pre-war splendor. There are numerous monumental buildings and not one skyscraper.

Holocaust memorial

The Hungarian Parliament opened in 1902 and is one of the finest Neo-Gothic buildings in Europe. The Parliament and St. Stephen’s Basilica are the tallest buildings in the city. There are some Soviet era stark block style buildings but just ignore them.

From Castle Hill  people often choose to walk down the long flight of steps then walk across the Danube on the Chain Bridge into Pest. On the return journey there is a funicular to take you back up Castle Hill.

Budapest_Funicular and Chain Bridge

Our hotel gave us a free one-day pass on the HOP ON HOP OFF city tour bus that weaves through Budapest. This city is spread out so this tourist bus is worth it, if you get a reduced price, to get your bearings early in your visit. It includes a taped commentary between stops in 16 languages. The Hungarians are extremely helpful and most of them, especially the younger adults, speak English.

HOP ON HOP OFF bus Budapest

View of Parliment building from the Danube

Budapest has a rich heritage in transit. Their subway is the oldest one on the continent, only two years younger than London. However, the whole Budapest subway system (METRO) was electrified before London converted one line. Londoners were still choking on smoke. There are three subway lines and a fourth to open soon.

The original  yellow subway line, completed in 1896 with three carriages, goes directly up Andrassy Street, the main boulevard with designer shops, the magnificent State Opera and Hero’s Square. We went to a matinee at the State Opera, a Neo-Renaissance masterpiece completed in 1884 when money was not a problem.The interior is a study in opulence and grandeur and rivals any other opera house in the world. With state subsidizes it is far less expensive to go to a full opera than a short concert in the churches. There are tours of the building if opera isn’t your thing.

Yellow line-oldest subway on the continent-Budapest

Budapest Transport System (BKV) has a mixture of buses (258 routes), subways (METRO-3 lines), trams (30 lines), commuter trains (HEV-4 lines)  and rubber tire trolleys (trolleybuses-15) and it works together very well.

The actual tourist coaches, which we didn’t ride, are huge Mercedes Benz buses, very elegant and full of Russian tourists.

St. Stephen's Basilica-Budapest

Good transit should make it easy to reach important destinations and Budapest does an excellent job meeting that demand for the locals as well as tourists.

One evening we attended a concert at the magnificent St. Stephen’s Basilica. Our bus stop was about three blocks away and numerous people were walking to their destinations alone in central Pest, including young women.

In Budapest and London, taxis and bicycles are allowed to share the bus lanes.

Janet at the subway station directly outside the State Opera

Subway station at the State Opera-Pest

Inside the State Opera house-Budapest

Using the transit system is easy if you take a few minutes to become familiar with the  Hungarian names and don’t try to use maps that convert to English.  The system uses little paper tickets that have to be purchased in advance. Passes and tourist passes (Budapest Card)  are available but you need to use them a lot to make them worthwhile. The subways usually had several guards standing around to watch that you have a ticket and punch it. However, a lot of people risk riding the buses/trams for free since enforcement is erratic (you will get a fine if caught without at a ticket). The fares were raised a few years ago and a lot of people stopped paying. The system is losing a lot of transit revenue. BKV estimates 10% of riders don’t purchase a ticket. It looked to me that everyone had a ticket for the subway but few had tickets on the buses/trams.

There are ticket punches on the buses/trams but hardly ever used. The buses/trams  have no way to count ridership since people are allowed to enter  at both the front and back doors without punching a ticket or swiping a pass. BKV intends to purchase fare boxes and get swipe cards some time in the future. Due to limited funding the system is struggling to modernize both the vehicles and the fare collection system.

Articulated Rubber tire streetcar-Pest

Articulated Rubber Tire Streetcar 2-Pest

Riverside Tram-Pest

Transit is easy, plentiful, clean, frequent and a good buy for us, even if expensive to locals.  Make sure you either buy tickets (single or in a book) or buy a pass in advance. Tickets are available many places including metro stations, newsstands, BKV kiosks and post offices. There is no transfer policy.

Sign outside a bar in Budapest

Here is a very interesting blog about the transit system from the Budapest Survival Kit.

Next stop, Prague.

Photos by Bill and Janet Rogers, except for the funicular

Hero's Square-Budapest

Bill at Hero's Square-Pest

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